Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

Charles Barkley: Klay Thompson is a better player than Kevin Durant

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You know the NBA season is back when Charles Barkley is just talking out his… er, saying ridiculous things.

On Inside the NBA before the tip off of San Antonio thrashing Golden State, Barkley said then tried to defend the idea that Klay Thompson is a better all-around player than Kevin Durant. It was vintage Barkley — and it’s what makes the barbershop feel of Inside the NBA must-watch television every week.

The flaw in Barkley’s argument is that he tries to use the “two-way player” argument to try and balance out Durant’s and Thompson’s offensive contributions. Is Thompson a better defender than Durant? Yes. Even though people underestimate Durant’s defense a little, I will stipulate Thompson is a better defender. But does that defense make up for how much more offensive versatility and shot creation Durant brings to the table compared to Thompson? No. Again, Thompson is an excellent offensive player and probably the second best shooter in the game, but he does not create shots or force a defense to adjust the way Durant does. KD’s amazing offense tips the scales more than Thompson’s defense. KD is the better overall player.

And The Jet is way too quick to dismiss Kawhi Leonard as maybe the second best player in the league. But Leonard made his case just after these comments.

Watch Jonathan Simmons posterize JaVale McGee

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This was the exclamation point on the Spurs thrashing of the Warriors on opening night.

Jonathan Simmons — who was a beast in the first half and finished the night with 20 points off the bench — was pounding the ball out top, then as the clock wound down blew by rookie Patrick McCaw, got into the lane looking for the two-handed slam. When JaVale McGee slid over to contest Simmons switched to the one-hander and finished over the big man.

That’s the way to start an NBA season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Kawhi’s Spurs are not to be trifled with

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 25:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs dribbles the ball up court against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter in an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on October 25, 2016 Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The NBA season has returned, and we are back with our morning recap of what you need to know from the night before around the NBA — three things we learned. So if you were busy watching the Cubs bats go cold, here is what you missed.

1) The Spurs are Kawhi Leonard’s team — and they are magnificent. Every year we give lip service to the “don’t sleep on the Spurs” idea, and then we get wrapped up talking about some other bright, shiny new object. Like say a move from Oklahoma City to the Bay Area. We do exactly what we said we weren’t going to do.

Then San Antonio reminds us they are fierce competitors and contenders. Tuesday night the Spurs went into Oracle Arena and slapped Kevin Durant and the Warriors around. This was an old-school beatdown. In a game where the Warriors had the winners of the last three MVP awards, Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the court — a career-high 35 points on 21 shots, he got to the line 15 times, and he had five steals. Tim Duncan is gone and this is now Leonard’s team, without question. He was simply unfair, just torturing the Warriors on both ends and leading a physical Spurs team that dominated the glass — the Spurs had 24 second chance points to the Warriors 4.

Leonard didn’t do it alone, LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and 14 boards, Jonathan Simmons came off the bench for 20 and had a highlight chasedown block on Stephen Curry. But make no mistake, this was Leonard’s team and night.

Games in October are incredibly poor predictors of the outcome of a May playoff series. Both of these teams will evolve over the course of the season, and the Warriors will get things figured out. But we learned on opening night there is no doubt the Spurs are Kawhi’s team — and they are not to be trifled with.

2) Golden State’s defense needs some work. It was easy to see the rough spots in the Warriors offense the team still needs to be smoothed out — the passes to teammates who had already vacated the spot, the threes not being in rhythm (7-of-33 from deep, a number of those looks uncontested), and all those stars playing next to each other rather than with each other. It was to be expected.

However, offense wasn’t the Warriors’ big problem — their defense was atrocious. The Spurs scored at a ridiculous 125.9 points per 100 possessions pace, because literally half of their shot attempts were uncontested (according to the player tracking stats). San Antonio had an eFG% of 54.1, and the Spurs grabbed the offensive rebound on 41.2 percent of their shots when they did miss. Leonard had a career-high 35 points, Aldridge 26, and the Spurs time after time got the shot they wanted — and they had 24 fast break points, the Warriors did not get back in transition defense. The Warriors missed Andrew Bogut inside, both as a rim protector and on the glass (this was not Zaza Pachulia’s best night).

The past two years, the Warriors had a top five NBA defense, and that as much as their vaunted shooting was the reason they went to back-to-back Finals. No doubt they made the right move adding Durant to the roster — they are going to figure this all out. This was the first game of 82, and we knew there would be some bumps at the start. But more than the offense, Steve Kerr and his staff need to get the Warriors back to being a defensive force.

3) Damian Lillard’s brilliant offense overcame his defense. Again. Damian Lillard came into this season saying he wanted to be MVP, and on opening night he put up those kinds of numbers — 39 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and he led his team to an opening night win against Utah. Portland did a great job of setting their high picks especially high, then letting Lillard go downhill fast off them right at Rudy Gobert — and Lillard finished around and over the big man all night.

Portland had an eight-point lead at the half and led by double digits for chunks of the second quarter, but in the third Utah took the lead because they exposed Lillard on the other end. Utah started running a George Hill/Joe Johnson pick-and-roll (1/3 action) and when Lillard switched it they got the ball to Johnson and he just overpowered Lillard on his way to 29 points. Johnson shot 6-of-7 in the paint and scored at will all night.

Lillard came back and had 16 of his points in the fourth quarter to help Portland get the win, he was nothing short of brilliant on offense. The Blazers got enough stops to rack up the victory at home. But their small backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum is going to be a defensive challenge all season long.

Opening night bonus note: LeBron James was having fun at the expense of the Knicks’ defense. The Cavaliers cruised to a win over New York, and LeBron James had a triple-double and did whatever he wished. And what he wished was to dunk. A lot.

Watch Jonathan Simmons’ chasedown block on Stephen Curry


Jonathan Simmons did his best LeBron James impression on opening night.

While the Spurs were running the Warriors out of Oracle Arena — a 129-100 Spurs win — Simmons had a fantastic chasedown block on Stephen Curry. It was one of the plays of the game (most of the rest came from Kawhi Leonard).

Simmons had 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting off the bench for the Spurs in the win, which included a poster dunk on JaVale McGee late. Just to put some icing on the win.